[Contents] [Next >>]

Station 1. Fred is condemned to death

Wood carving by Susan Hagen, story by Mike Walsh

Fred sat down on one of the recliners by the pool. It was mid-afternoon. The sun was at its peak, and he was too tired to work any longer. He had been busy since early that morning. First he had to deal with two contractors, one to paint the apartment in the barn and the other to inspect the roof on the main house. Fred had also mowed the backyard and cleaned the pool. He took off his shirt, pushed his golf hat down over his eyes, and decided that a short nap would probably do him good.

Since losing his job a few years before, Fred had spent the majority of his time at home handling the maintenance of the property. He and Beth had purchased the big old house, barn, cottage, and four acre lot in the early '60s. In the '70s they had converted the top floor of the barn into an apartment, and their kids had lived in it during their college years.

Beth and Fred had rented out the cottage until one of their sons needed a place for his wife and child a few years earlier, at which point Beth insisted that they renovate it. They sank $30,000 into the place, an amount that Fred still found shocking. The project had kept him busy supervising the various contractors for six months. Of course, Beth made all the decorating decisions. Ever since the divorce she hadn't let him decide anything.

For years Fred had wanted to sell the entire property. It was too much work and cost them every cent they had just to keep the place up. Plus, this wasn't how he had imagined his retirement. He had seen himself as a high-priced consultant who did about a week's work per month, but things had worked out quite differently. Instead of relaxing and enjoying the fruits of his life's labor, he had gotten no consulting work and was constantly busy and stressed out. He had headaches, stomach cramps, and high blood pressure, and he talked to himself. He just couldn't relax.

The sun was bright and hot, and Fred's body glistened with sweat. He lay motionless, but his mind raced with thoughts of the past. The embarrassment of his early forced retirement hadn't been as bad as the divorce. Twenty years before Beth had simply decided that she didn't need him around any longer. He hadn't been helping much with the kids, and she said she could do the job easier if he weren't in the way. She got herself a lawyer and forced him to move out. He was required to foot the bills for the house and the kids.

It was over before he knew what had hit him, and there hadn't been a damn thing he could have done about it. Even the kids had taken her side. He resigned himself to his fate and hadn't fought the divorce, although he felt he had been made a scapegoat.

The only friends he'd had back in those days were his buddies at work. The six of them had adjacent offices along a corridor known around the company as "murderers' row," so-named because they always made a killing in the bond market. Fred smiled. Those were the good old days, when his existence had mattered and he had made an impact.

He and Beth had remarried eight years after the divorce, but the damage had been done. His position in the family had been irrevocably weakened. She called the shots. He made suggestions and whined about her decisions, but it didn't make much difference.

Fred's retirement had come about prematurely and painfully. The stock market collapse of '87 had hit his company hard, almost wiping out several of the company's largest clients. It was the beginning of the end for his company, and there wasn't much Fred could do about it. He was going down with a sinking ship.

One day he came into the office and saw several strangers milling about. One of his comrades from murderers' row gave Fred the bad news. The company had been bought out, and the office was being closed. They had all lost their jobs.

Fred contacted a few headhunters, but each one told him that employers wanted healthy youngsters who had the latest education, ideas, and computer know-how. Placing an older fellow like Fred, even with his experience, would be next to impossible. There was no use in even sending a resume. His punishment, he knew, had been cruel and unusual, and at the age of 59 he retired to maintain the family property.

Fred sighed. He was drowsy, but he couldn't quite fall asleep. He was in that state between sleep and wakefulness. Maybe he should have picked up computers decades ago, he thought, but it hadn't seemed necessary. A computer couldn't help with the bond market. The business was too complex-it had to be in your head. He had thought about taking a few computer courses when he lost his job, but he decided it was too late. He wasn't learning any new tricks.

Over the past fifteen years, Beth had built a gardening business into a profitable venture. She was bringing home enough money for both of them, so Fred didn't have to work. She got up early, went to the office in a fancy car, and came home late, just as he had for thirty-some years. They had completely switched roles. There was irony in that, he decided, but he didn't find it funny.

Fred desperately wanted to sell the property and move into a new place. He fantasized about living in a modern condo development where someone else cleaned the pool, painted, and mowed, but Beth loved the old place and wouldn't consider selling it.

Just that morning they had gotten an estimate for a new roof on the main house-$50,000. Fred could hardly believe it. The prices they were getting these days. The roof was over thirty years old, so it had to be done, but where would they get that kind of money? Ahh, what difference does it make? Fred thought. It was Beth's problem. If she loved the place so much, she would have to come up with the money.

Fred felt weak. His life as an important person was over. He no longer had an impact or made decisions. He just went along, barely persevering. At one time he had been the most powerful person in his family, the one everyone looked to for stability and strength. Now he was a maintenance man and a go-fer. They could probably get by just as easily without me, Fred thought. After all the years of hard work, this is what it had come to.

His hat was making him hot, so he took it off. Sweat poured down his face. He felt the sun burn into his hands, feet, chest, and forehead. Life is a punishment, he decided. When you are born, you are condemned.

He stripped off his shorts and underwear and walked to the edge of the pool. He paused and looked at the water, unsure of himself for a moment. Then he dove in and glided smoothly under the water, as naked and helpless as the day he was born.

Stations: [Contents] [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

See more of Susan Hagen's artwork or Mike Walsh's writing on missionCREEP.

Send email to Susan Hagen or Mike Walsh